Sunday, November 24, 2013

When The Greeks Owned Syria and Attacked Judah: Chanukah History

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                      

Alexander the Great (July 20/21, 356 BCE to June 10/11, 323 BCE was the King of Macedonia          ( Bulgaria, Greece and Yugoslavia), home of the city of Salonica, an important Greek port  from 336-323 BCE.  His personality had made a great impression on the Jews.  Josephus describes his visit to Jerusalem.  He had paid  honor to the high priest Jaddua.  The Talmud tells us that when Alexander and his conquering legions advanced up to Jerusalem, they were met by a delegation of elders, led by the High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik.  When Alexander saw Shimon coming to him, he dismounted and prostrated himself before the Jewish sage.  Alexander said  to his men that each time he went into battle, he would see a vision of this High Priest leading the Greek troops to victory.  Alexander was a kind and generous ruler.  He canceled the Jewish taxes during Sabbatical years, and even offered animals to be sacrificed on his behalf in the Temple.  Alexander never visited Jerusalem, though the Talmud tells of this meeting between him and the Jews at Antipatris.  He had suppressed the Samaritan revolt which gave the Jews of Jerusalem the occasion to stress their loyalty.  We find Alexander in Talmudic, Midrashic and medieval Jewish stories.   Scholars doubt Josephus' information that he granted civic rights to Jewish settlers in the Ionian cities of Asia Minor.  Unfortunately, Alexander's heirs failed to sustain his benevolence.  He was so beloved by the Jews that you will find many named their sons Alexander.  He died at the young age of 33.

Then there was a Greek king, Antiochus III,  who ruled Syria in the Hellenistic period of 223-187 BCE.  He took 2,,000 Jewish families from Babylon to Lydia and Phrygia. The Babylonians had attacked Judah in 597 and 586 BCE so Jews had been taken away to Babylonia and lived there for over 300 years.  This king was from the House of Seleucus who ruled Syria and was one of  13 Greek kings.  The Seleucids were a Hellenistic royal dynasty founded by Seleucus Nicator.  He was one of Alexander the Great's generals.

Antiochus  conquered Judah in about 200 BCE and granted privileges to the Temple.  Then he captured Jerusalem in 198 BCE.  He treated the Jews quite well, with understanding.
 However, along came Antiochus IV Epiphanes who reigned from 175-163 BCE who was turned back by Rome on his 2nd expedition against Egypt in 168 BCE.  Now relations between the Jews and the Seleucids had deteriorated because the Seleucid kingdom was compelled to resort to all possible financial extortion's to meet its depressed monetary situation.  Antiochus's religious and cultural policy led to the Hashmonean revolt .  The result was that the Jews freed themselves from the Seleucids.
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Now we come to the time of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, almost 22 centuries ago, that history took place which causes the Jews to celebrate Chanukah.  They had returned to the land of Israel from the Babylonian Exile and had rebuilt the Holy Temple.  However, they remained subject to the Persian Empire first, then later, the conquering armies of Alexander the Great.  When he died, his kingdom was divided among his generals.  They had a power struggle which engulfed all the nations of the Middle East.  Israel found itself under the Seleucid Dynasty-Greek kings who reigned from Syria.

At the time of King Antiochus IV, the fate of the Jewish people seemed grim indeed.  The vastly outnumbered Maccabees were up against the world's most sophisticated military machine.  They faced opposition from within, as well.  Many Jews were meek, complacent, too willing to forsake their heritage and assimilate into the Hellenistic culture.  It was a time that was the darkest hour before the dawn.  With G-d's help and against all odds, the Maccabees were able to reclaim the Holy land and rededicate the Holy Temple.
Though their rule was rather benign to begin with, Antiochus IV waged a bloody war on the Jews which would threaten not just their physical lives, but their very spiritual existence.  By having been dominated by the Greeks, many Jews had begun to embrace the Greek culture and its hedonistic, pagan way of life.  They became Jewish Hellenists who were willing pawns in Antiochus' scheme to obliterate every trace of the Jewish religion.  The Holy Temple was desecrated and robbed of all its treasures.  Innocent people were massacred in mass.  Survivors were heavily taxed.  An Idol of Zeus was on the holy altar and the Greek Syrians forced the Jews to bow before it under penalty of death.  They could not observe the Sabbath and circumcision.

At the time of Antiochus IV lived the Jewish Hasmoneans.  This was the name of a priestly family and dynasty founded by Mattathias from the town on Modiin.  Mattathias had 5 sons; Judah the Maccabee,(the hammerer)  Jonathan, Simon, John, and Eleazar.   Jews were forced to offer sacrifices to the Greek idols.   "A Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men" They directed the popular revolt against the hellenizing  policy adopted in Judah by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes.  The Hasmneans fought a number of successful battles against the Syrians and in 164 BCE, Judah  Maccabee re-captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. This was followed by many raids to rescue the Jewish population of Ammon, Idumea, Gilead and Galilee.  They were defeated in 163 at Bet Zechariah where Eleazar was killed.  The Hasmoneans were able, owing to dynastic distractions in Syria, to get terms securing Jewish religious freedom, but Judah and his party aspired for political freedom, too.  They continued the fight and Judah died at Elassa in 160 BCE.  John was murdered afterwards and Jonathan became the leader.  By playing off of Syrian pretenders against each other, Jonathan was able to get the high priesthood in 152 BCE and governorship of Judah in 150 BCE.  Simon succeeded in gaining exemption from tribute in 147 BCE.  He was confirmed by the people as hereditary high priest, ethnarch and general in 142 BCE.  Then he was murdered in 135 BCE.  His son, John Hyrcanus  succeed him and was defeated horribly by Antiochus VII Sidetes.

This brought about a rising which Antiochus had to suppress with great cruelty.  Thousands of Jews were killed and many sold into slavery.  Antiochus then brought non-Jewish settlers into Jerusalem and fortified Acra as a stronghold of the Hellenizers to dominate the city.
He began a terrible religious persecution of the Jews.  He forbid circumcision and observing the Sabbath. Then he desecrated the Temple altar and set up pagan altars in the provincial towns.  He compelled the Jews to take part in pagan ceremonies.  His excesses caused the Hasmonean uprising.

Nicanor was  general who commanded the Syrian forces of Antiochus IV along with Gorgias against the Hasmoneans in 166-165 BCE.  He was defeated at Emmaus.  Nicanor was again sent against Judah the Maccabee in 161 BCE  and was defeated and killed at Adasa, on Adar 13 (Jewish calendar).  This was thereafter commemorated as Nicanor Day.

His son, Antiochus V, who reigned from 164-162 BCE continued the war against the Jews until 163 BCE when he granted them religious and some political autonomy in return for their acceptance of his rule.

Antiochus VII Sidetes  occupied Jerusalem, plundered the Temple treasure and tried to Hellenize Judea by force because he wanted to convert it into a a frontier-province that he could depend on. Antiochus VII Sidetes reigned from 138-128 BCE and came down hard on the Jews by reasserting the Seleucid claims on Judea.  Antiochus VII Sidetes  had invaded the country in the time of Simon the Hasmonean in 138 BCE and again with greater success in 134 BCE.  He started off by repulsing them in 138 BCE and again invaded Judea and seized Jerusalem in 135-4 BCE.

 John Hyrcanus, son and successor of Simon the Hasmonean, ruled from 135 to 104 BCE and was forced to surrender and destroyed the walls of Jerusalem.  He ceded his conquests outside of Judea and had to pay tribute.  Antiochus died in 129 which gave John a chance to reassert his independence. John was confirmed as high priest but had to accept harsh peace-terms which made the Hasmonean state again tributary to Syria.  He had to participate in the Parthian campaign of Antiochus Sidetes.  After the defeat of Syria and the death of Antiochus, he freed himself from Syrian suzerainty and regained territory he had been obliged to cede.  He attacked the Samaritans and captured Shechem and Mt. Gerizim and destroyed their temple.  Then John overran the territory of the Idumeans and forced them to embrace Judaism.  Most likely he conquered Galilee with his son Aristobulus who completed the conquest.

 Just before John Hyrcanus's death, his sons defeated the Samaritans and got control of Bet Shean and part of the Valley of Jezreel.     Antiochus  VII had occupied Jerusalem, plundered the Temple treasure and tried to Hellenize Judea by force because he wanted to convert it into a a frontier-province that he could depend on.  When Antiochus died in 129 BCE, the Jews revolted, and the Seleucid rule in Judah ended in 128.  

Antiochus IX Cyzicenus reigned on and off from 125 to 95 BCE and was severely defeated in 107 when he tried to help out Samaria which was under siege by a Jewish army.

Had the Jews not overcome Antiochus IV when they did, Judaism would have been wiped out.  If that had fallen, Christianity would not have risen when it did and neither would have Islam.  We'd all still be celebrating Greek and Roman gods.  The Menorah that we use in celebration commemorates the eternal light that hung in the Temple which was lit with virgin olive oil.  A great Rabbi once remarked that "you cannot chase away darkness with a stick.  You have to turn on the light."  The way to eliminate darkness-to rid the world of ignorance, negativity, hatred and greed-is to kindle the lights of knowledge, generosity, hope and love.

The Chanukah menorah is lit only after nightfall because his signifies that our purpose is to illuminate the darkness of this world, until the time when, as the Prophet says, "the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d."  The world is waning itself off of organized religion at this time, I note.  It may be difficult for us to  perceive G-dliness in our everyday lives, but Chanukah reminds us, even in our darkest moments, that the light of knowledge can shine brightly, that redemption is at hand, if we will kindle just one more lamp.

The soul cannot be extinguished.  Miraculously, despite the best efforts of the oppressors, one cruse of pure olive oil remained in the Temple when Judas Maccabee entered, and one cruse was enough to rededicate the Temple and renew the holy task of spreading light throughout the world.

The New Standard AJewish Encyclopedia
Your Chanukah Guide- Chabad 1996

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